"By Their Fruit You Will Recognize Them": Reflections on Last Sunday's Counterprotest in Berkeley

“By their fruit you will recognize them.”  -Jesus in Matthew 7:16

Last Sunday, I participated in the interfaith counter-protest of the planned white supremacy rally in Berkeley. After what had unfolded in Charlottesville, VA a few days before there was a lot of nervousness about this counter-protest. And yet the need for our presence as clergy, as peaceful marchers, and as people of faith was very clear. As our Conference Minister, Diane Weible wrote to us recently, “Silence is not an option” in the face of this evil.  As I shared with you last week in my sermon, I deeply agree. 

According to media coverage the counter protest became violent. Multiple news stories on the internet, and national television showed the air filled with pepper spray, and tear gas. There was one video of punches being thrown played repeatedly. There were menacing camera shots of black clad, antifa marchers. Antifa was the focus of these negative stories. According to reporters antifa caused the violence. “They” started the melee and “they” are the problem. The reporters almost seemed to portray antifa as bullies of the peacefully gathered white supremacists. 

Full stop.

I am always, as a United Church of Christ clergywoman, an advocate of peaceful protest. I believe that non-violent protest is the best way to resist injustice and the deathbringing that (as Jeremiah puts it) “is coming up into our doors and windows.” But let’s be clear. We can argue about the means of resistance forever and all that does is take attention away from the struggles of people of color. White supremacy and white privilege are the things we must resist. And it is important that we resist going down these rabbit holes of resistance. 

When I arrived in the FCCB sanctuary at the pre-march event it was packed to capacity. I joined the clergy who were standing in the back and was happy to see many friends. Organizers were giving instructions and reviewing what many of us had learned in training. UCC Clergy gave us an encouraging word. We prayed and sang. We hugged and greeted each other as we could hear the helicopters roaring overhead. The joy and resolve was infectious in the midst of our anxiety. 

We wore red bracelets so we could find each other if it got chaotic. Organizers handed out water, protein bars, and signs. And we moved outside together in groups (with a buddy system for safety) and kept singing “This Little Light of Mine” and “I Shall Not Be Moved” as we marched toward Martin Luther King Jr. Park and Berkeley City Hall.  It was a diverse group and there were many marchers of different faiths.  Signs read “LGBTQ and Dismantling White Supremacy,” “Love Wins!”My Grandmother Did Not Survive Auschwitz for This!” and “White Supremacy is Not a Christian Value.”  Organizers asked us (a small group of UCC Clergy who had among us a prominent organizer for immigrant rights) to go to the back of the group and keep people moving forward and clustered close together- and to watch for trouble behind us. We did so. And we also kept the singing going.   

The helicopters droned on loudly above us, and the rally was taking place when our group arrived at MLK Park. There were television vans everywhere. Police in riot gear were casually deployed on the lawn of City Hall. And we heard rumors that that there had been some “skirmishing,” and that a group of white supremacists were on the other side of a police line “a little over a block” away from us.  We also heard it had been a “great” and “successful” counter protest so far. MLK Park was packed with people, including black-clad antifa marchers waving a huge “anarchy” flag. I noticed many of them had their masks and hoodies pulled off (It was hot) and were laughing and talking. There was a joyous atmosphere in the midst of the anxiety. One young black-clad woman in a hoodie with ski goggles around her neck removed a box of strawberries from her backpack and was passing them around. She walked over and offered one to me. We ate strawberries and talked for a few minutes about my church and about her family and mine, and we talked about her studies. She was full of fire.  I saw my younger self in her eyes. A younger self that was a seeker of lgbtq justice and had less patience for holding complexities. I was also remembering, as we talked, that Clergy protesting white supremacy in Charlottesville had attributed antifa protesters with saving their lives.  

We started marching again and suddenly she was gone. The masks and hoodies went back on. Chants were raised. Anxiety went up. Our Interfaith group sang loudly to shift the energy. And we all marched together in that tension to Ohlone Park. After we arrived, the march began to disband, and we- the Interfaith marchers- walked in groups, for safety, back to FCCB.  A carload of white supremacists came by once while we stood on the corner and yelled epithets at us.  They didn’t give us a chance to look into their eyes.

I was shocked when I got home and turned on the television. The coverage looked like Berkeley was a war zone. There was talk of how antifa “stormed” right wing protestors who were “protesting peacefully.” (There is no peace in white supremacy my friends.) The media covered 5% of the march like it was the whole march. 95% of the march was peaceful, and beautiful, and life-giving. And our Still-Speaking God knows we need to know about that right now. But that is not the story the media told our nation. Pundits ranted. And Politicians issued disconnected statements that denounced antifa and cast blame on them for the violence. 

“If it bleeds. It leads” someone said to me with a shrug when I voiced concern about this wildly skewed telling of events. Maybe so. But as I write to you today, I am going to lead with the singing, and the praying, and the joy in the anxiety and tensions.  I am going to lead by lifting up our peaceful diverse group of marchers. I am going to lift up and amplify our brothers and sisters of color who have patiently welcomed us white folks- even though many of us are pretty damn late to this work. And I am going to lead with the truth that as we stood in front of Berkeley City Hall in the tension, resisting the sin of white supremacy, and as I held the complexities of being a white, lesbian, American, progressive clergywoman, who believes in non-violent tactics of resistance- I can still see the fire in her eyes and hear her voice. And I can taste those strawberries.  The flavors were complex. Some were sweet, and some were a little bitter and didn't taste quite right to me. But I am really glad we shared them. Because it is in the tension and complexity of that kind of sharing that we might be able, as a nation, to find our way home.